Monday, July 20, 2015

Alan Kupperberg: 1953 - 2015

Alan Kupperberg as Wally Wood drew him
This was one of his all time favorite pieces of art
Alan Kupperberg was my friend.

I grew up on Marvel Comics. It didn’t matter who published them, be it Marvel themselves, or Newton or Yaffa here in Australia, they were my staple diet.  Throughout the ‘70s I’d read them and enjoy the artwork and the funny words that I never understood until I looked them up (see, comics DO encourage literacy, or, at least at one stage they did).  Moving into the ‘80s I began to notice names on stories and discovered that some names did stories that I enjoyed more than others.  One name that stood out to me was Alan Kupperberg.  It didn’t matter that his art wasn’t on the same level as Johns Romita or Byrne, or Franks Miller and Robbins, it wasn’t that bad to look at.  It was entertaining. Plus he drew The Invaders and several issues of Marvel Two-In-One including my all-time favourite issue, number 75.

I noticed that Alan was good at drawing clowns.  Nobody drew Obnoxio The Clown like Alan did, and nobody ever will.  I was as happy as could be when I discovered Frenchy The Evil Clown in the pages of National Lampoon and saw Alan’s name there, front and present.  Clown city!  Years later I had Alan do a Clown Team-Up cover.  I’m not sure if he ever finished it, if anyone has it; it’s mine so give it back.  But Alan and foul mouthed clowns with filthy habits seemed to run hand in hand.
 
Obnoxio The Clown vs The X-Men #1
Alan write, drew, edited, lettered and coloured this book from cover to cover. Nobody has done that at Marvel before, or since
I found Alan via the magic of the Internet about ten years ago.  We began to correspond, I interviewed him and we hit it off for some reason.  He was very self-depreciating about his work.  He was proud of it, but he knew where he stood in the history of comic books, a journeyman artist, dependable, able to hit deadlines but far from a superstar artist.  When I met him he was in the doldrums.  His comic book career was finished. He’d given up on drawing the syndicate strip Little Orphan Annie as it was costing him more than he earned, so small were the returns.  Publishers had long ceased to call and nobody was asking him for commissions.  He wasn’t rich, so I set up a web-site for him, free of charge, and got him work via that.  I contacted people I knew, publishers and art collectors, and let them know he was willing and able to work.  He got commissions and some minor publishing work.  His joke was, “I’ve gotten the ten people who were looking for me for commissions, so you can take down the web-site now.”  He felt that people didn’t care about him, but then would complain that all they wanted was a signature or a free sketch.  Deep down he loved that he was remembered.  He hated asking for anything, but would happily take anything offered.  The one time that he asked was when he reached out to me and another friend of his to write to HERO on his behalf.  He was very happy that HERO helped him and he couldn’t speak highly enough of them.

I also began to interview him about various runs he did, Blue Beetle, Spider-Man, Invaders, What If, Thor, Avengers – books that he’d worked on and that people remembered with fondness.  He was belligerent and abusive towards me during these interviews if I praised him, if I didn’t recognise a swipe or, God forbid, I didn’t have the source material in front of me – because he’d be ready and waiting with everything he needed and he was equally as quick to tell me how stupid I was for being unprepared. "Oh, fuck this, call me back when  you're ready," he'd say, but then he'd keep talking for another hour or so.  He was quick to point out what panels he’d swiped and could tell me exactly what book he swiped them from.  For example, in one issue of What If, a Spider-Man themed issue, was packed with swipes he claimed.  Gil Kane, Jim Mooney, John Romita, Ross Andru, Steve Ditko.  If it was inked the way he wanted it, it would have looked like an all-star jam, but, as is the way, he wasn’t finished the way he intended it to be.  Never mind, he hated drawing it anyway.  He hated drawing superhero comics because he couldn’t figure them out.  He wasn’t a physical man so exercise and fighting was alien to him.  But it paid the bills and he got to meet people.  And did he meet people!!!

Kupperberg by Wood
Alan knew a lot of secrets about the comic book industry.  He knew where the bodies were buried and, more importantly, who buried them.  He told me many, many things that I won’t repeat for a few years, “Wait ‘til they’re dead, or I’m dead at least,” was his catch-cry, as we’d both dissolve into laughter over another  scandalous story about an artist or a writer or a publisher.  He told me who stole what art from whom and he’d tell me how they did it.  I remember telling him a story I’d heard from Mike Esposito about how an editor at Marvel used to steal art.  Alan not only already knew who it was and what he stole, but he told me that he (Alan) used a similar trick to snag some Don Heck art back in the day when the same editor asked him to do ‘the trick’, but Alan turned the tables (‘the trick’ is kind of legal really, for an artist anyway, and no, it didn’t involve re-drawing or deceit, unlike the editor).  He told me who paid off their house with stolen Kirby and Ditko art from Marvel.  He told me how he’d tried to do the right thing by sneaking art that was destined to be destroyed out of DC’s offices and giving it back to the rightful owners only to have one artist actually complain to DC about how Alan was able to get art out but the artist couldn’t.  As Alan said, he never did that again, and he was bemused when the same artist later in life complained about all of his great art that DC destroyed.

He’d tell me, with a perverse sense of glee, about the work and personal habits of many people he met and he’d love putting them down in his Profusely Illustrated series.  Alan knew he could ruin a few reputations, but he never did.  He despised people who seemed only to be interested in people after they died, people who’d never lift a finger to help anyone, but once they’d passed would be racing to be the first into print with an eulogy.  He’d feed me stories; give me hints of what to look for and where to find information, which I’d follow up.  There was so much knowledge there and, as Steve Mitchell told me, if Alan told you something then it happened.  Such was the steel trap that was his memory.  He never forgot a slight and he carried his grudges for life – the mere mention of a certain inkers name would be enough to send him on a rant for a good twenty minutes, usually ending in Alan recounting how he’d nearly punched the inker out at a show over a debt of $100, causing an increasingly worried looking Irwin Hansen to lean over to give Alan back a borrowed pencil telling Alan that he didn't want to owe him anything.  Irwin’s response was usually the cue to start the laughter.  He would always ask for the latest word about the artist and then add to it with another bit of scurrilous gossip, usually about his personal habits.

Possibly the dirtiest conversation I had with him was the four and something hours we spent talking Clowns, and interview everyone should read.  Out of the four hours I expect that a good ninety minutes would be pure laughter and swearing.  And the swearing!! Alan taught me how to swear, fluently, in Yiddish and I’ll always think him for that, the putz.  One day I'll listen back to that tape, along with other tapes that we did, interviews never published and conversations that just went on and on.

Alan loved his family and was destroyed when his mother, Lottie, passed away. He loved his cats, when his beloved Bennett passed in his arms, Alan was inconsolable.  He would talk for hours about the Kupperberg clan, his grandparents, how his father Sydney bore a resemblance to Jim Mooney and how he adored his wife Debbi.  The way to get him going was talk family, cats, television and I Love Lucy.  I lost track of the amount of time we spent talking about the various phases of Lucille Ball's career.

He was mischievous and if he could get a laugh at the expense of another person, then he was good for it. Especially if that person was me.  A typical Alan Kupperberg gag goes like this – I told him that Howard Chaykin was coming to Adelaide for a convention.  “Great,” said Alan, “when you go and see him and say, ‘Hey, Howie, Kupps says hello!’ Trust me, he’ll get a kick out of it”.  I knew that Alan and Chaykin knew each other from way back, going back to when Alan would ghost for Chaykin, most famously on Star Wars #10 that saw Alan’s name in larger type than Howard (which, as Alan would gleefully tell me, pissed Howard off royally) and from when they’d prowl various bars and nightclubs collecting phone numbers of girls that they’d never call.  I duly walked up to Chaykin, introduced myself, called him ‘Howie’ and mentioned Alan.  

I honestly thought Chaykin was going to belt me, such was his seething anger.  “My name is HOWARD,” he hissed and then proceeded to tell me each and every one of Alan’s failings as an artist.  When I told Alan he laughed himself hoarse as he told me that he knew that Chaykin hated to be called Howie – it was a set-up, at my expense.  Then he listened as I recounted what Howard (not Howie) had said, asked what I'd said in response (I didn't agree, Alan said I was an idiot because if I'd agreed I might have gotten free artwork), told me how wrong I was and then told me each and every one of Chaykin’s failings as an artist.  Pure gold.  That was Alan Kupperberg.

I’m sure he turned that acid tongue on me to a few people in his days, I don’t mind. He earned that right.  He backed me to the hilt when it mattered, and I hope he knew that I did the same for him.  He was a damned good friend and I’m glad I told him that.  I’m glad I told him how much I loved him, both as a professional and as a person.  No matter our issues we cleared the air towards the end and that’s all that matters.  He was good to me and I hope, if he was being honest, he’d say the same back about me. 

Right after that he’d tell me how useless I am because I still can't work out what a brisket is.
I’m going to miss Alan.  He was a good artist, a terrific writer and a good friend.  Perhaps I should repost those interviews for people to see, once more, just how good Alan was.

4 comments:

Alan Weiss said...

Unless Alan K misled you, you should know Debra was not his wife. This is not necessarily significant unless in legal terms, as in next of kin. So, in this case, it is.

Rick Marschall said...

Very nice, very warm tribute. I got to know Alan a little bit when I was editor at Marvel, late '70s, though I don't think he worked on any of my books or mags. I picked up the nickname "King Kupps" from my assistant Ralph Macchio before I discerned a nudge of tease in it. My first taste of Alan as a genuinely nice guy was the day he brought his family into the office and introduced them around. Warm. Not another bullpen drone but a nice guy who freelanced when he could.

Vin the Comics Guy said...

Alan was responsible for one of my favorite books, Amazing Spider-Man #289. This was the so-called reveal of the Hobgoblin's identity, which Alan illustrated to be a red herring.

This is a great blog, by the way!

benjaminherman said...

Very lovely blog post, Daniel. It sounds like Alan could be simultaneously a great friend and incredibly difficult to know... but that's sometimes the case with the people who it is most worth getting to know.

I was a fan of Alan's work, and I wrote a few thoughts about him on my blog. I was fortunate enough to meet him a few times, and get a couple of sketches from him. One of those was of Captain Marvel / Mar-Vell. Why him? Well, in 2008 Alan was at a comic con in NYC. He had along with him some copies of commissions that he'd done recently for Kasra Ghanbari. I knew they were for Kasra because MODOK was in them! Anyway, a couple of these also had Mar-Vell in them. I had my Avengers sketchbook with me, and I asked Alan if he would sketch the Captain in it. So as he was working on it he glaned up at me and asked me a question. I'm paraphrasing, but here's more or less how it went...

Alan: Do you know who my favorite Captain Marvel artist was?
Me: No, I don't. Who?
Alan: Wayne Boring.
Me: Wayne Boring?!?
Alan: Yes, Wayne Boring.
Me: You mean the Golden Age artist Superman artist? Um, do you mean that he also drew the Shazam version of Captain Marvel?
Alan: No, I mean the Marvel Comics version. Wayne Boring drew the Marvel series for a short time.
Me: Oh. Okay. I didn't know that.

Afterwards I looked it up and, yes, Wayne Boring had indeed penciled three issues of Captain Marvel in the early 1970s.

Of course, to this day I don't know if Alan was being serious, or if he was pulling me leg. Knowing him, maybe it was both!

In any case, you can see a scan of his Captain Marvel sketch on Comic Art Fans...

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerypiece.asp?piece=396515